Role of Spatial Empathy in creating Places

Chaitanyaa Agrawal is a 4th year architecture student, pursuing her Bachelor’s degree from Rachana Sansad’s Academy of Architecture. Her interests lie in arcitecture theory and research, and the philosophies associated with it. Exuberantly curious and a literary enthusiast, she is an avid reader and a creative writer. Her poem has been published in a poetry anthology book titled ” A moment in time”, by Paper Towns publication.

The surroundings of any living or a non-living entity are marked by everything that is encompassed in its physical domain. It is the immediate environment in which an object sits or interacts. Space is nothing but the interaction between these entities, embodied in the mathematical form of dimensions. The way these interactions are perceived by a living being becomes the identity of that space. We identify a place by its physical attributes like name and location, while space exists as the metaphysical identity (Schumacher, 2008). A crossroad junction is just space unless someone identifies its existence and perhaps recalls where the road leads. The addition of signage on that junction is evidence of its identity as a place. Thus, the transition of a space into a place can be understood as a spatial experience. All sentient beings have an understanding and connection, often interdependent, with their surroundings; the ‘human space’ is our surroundings. Everyday experiences in an environment develop into a cognitive identity and affect and alter the way living beings react or behave.

Behavior is governed by a complex network of stimuli and is a multifaceted discipline of responses. Understanding human psychology in architecture is inherently necessary, architecture being the art of designing ‘human space’. The concept of empathy in psychology, as we understand it, is trying to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the other, without losing our own identity. According to Marleau-Ponty, the world is a connection between ‘me’ and the ‘other’, the bond which emerges upon acknowledging that we are surrounded by the same atmosphere. (Duarte & Pinheiro, 2016). As we experience space, considering it as the ‘other’, we trigger intangible reactions based on memory. Even though it is impossible to ever truly be in someone else’s shoes, it instills a sense of responsibility in the way we affect and are affected in space. We thus start associating feelings to spaces; climbing up a floating staircase might be fearful or adventurous, the meditation center with its pagoda form might instill curiosity or calmness. Adaptiveness, along with the idea of ‘spatial empathy’ could become grounds for creative innovations in the field of architecture. Adaptiveness allows us to explore beyond our present understandings of the world, whereas spatial empathy resonates with our understandings and experiences.

Spatial empathy is closely linked with spatial order. Spatial order is the pattern in which objects are arranged and observed, and can be pleasant or unpleasant, recognizable or alien. Architects generally aim to create an aesthetically appealing, consciously or subconsciously noticeable spatial order, which directs a behavioral pattern. Spatial order could thus be considered as a unit of spatial empathy. Identifying and recognizing patterns that evoke certain feelings might become the architect’s cue into understanding the behavior the architectural work will lead to and certain established spatial orders can be challenged through it. The design of a parliament building could be seen beyond establishing an authoritative regime into becoming a place of servitude, a redevelopment project could take a step further from ‘form follows function’ into inculcating a sense of belonging in its residents. Identifying patterns in behavioral responses to certain spaces and situations is essential for the creation of ‘empathetic spaces’.

The human brain acknowledges space as more than just a means of survival, thus developing the notion of an ‘atmosphere’ or ‘ambience.’ It evokes sensory responses, and paves way for a certain type of reaction. Although feelings are unique and seldom predictable, the act of sensorial interactions is more objective. The volume of spaces or patterns on the facade of a structure is just a part and not the whole experience of an architectural place. The emphasis lies on the movement within the space, the experiences generated through the movement, and the interactions it promotes. A pathway connecting two major lakeside promenades in the city, through pedestrian and cycle tracks, fenced by flowers and shrubs, having urban spaces transitioning from lakeview to hustle of underbridge spaces (for example the Brooklyn-Queens-Greenway system)- all relating and reminding us of our identity in our surroundings.

The idea of spatial empathy or empathy itself is crucial to the existence of the ‘other’. The way we interact with space, as well as other humans within it, is often the result of the spatial order it follows; a footpath along a highway with hotels and resorts versus the crowded streets of a flea market. The sensorial understandings of spatial empathy could be applied to understand the kind of interactions and interpersonal relationships that built spaces develop. This becomes especially crucial in today’s context, where our physical boundaries are being altered due to the pandemic. A simple park bench where strangers would often greet each other with pleasantries and handshakes is now being separated by a planter in the middle. Although the pandemic is only temporary, it has certainly brought a change in our ‘normal’.

An architectural entity or space is not limited to serving its function or as a means of comfort or pleasure, but also forms emotional associations and instills a sense of belonging. Spatial empathy with its sensorial tools explores the interpersonal relationships- among various user groups and the user with space itself. Thus it can be concluded spatial empathy is the key that converts a ‘house’ into a ‘home’, enabling the multisensory interactions to play to their full potential. This could potentially be a way forward into developing sensitive ambient spaces as designers, with a background of historical and psychological research.


Duarte, C. R., & Pinheiro, E. (2016, September). Spatial empathy and urban experience: a case study in a public space from Rio de Janeiro. Ambiances, tomorrow. Proceedings of 3rd International Congress on Ambiances, 3(Volos, Greece), 611 – 616. Ffhal-01414016

GAINES, E. (2006). Communication and the Semiotics of Space. SAGE PUBLICATIONSNew Delhi /Thousand Oaks/ London. 10.1177/097325860600100203

Grosz, E. A. (2001). Architecture from the outside : essays on virtual and real space. The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England. NA2500 .G76 2001

Popple, A. V., & Levi, D. M. (2005). The perception of spatial order at a glance (Issue 9 ed., Vol. Volume 45). Vision Research. 10.1016

Schumacher, P. (2008). The Concept of Space in Architecture : Emergence, Hegemony and Transcendence. Editrice Compositori, O.P.4(Bologna, Italy).

Simonnot, N., Balaÿ, O., & Frioux, S. (2013). Ambience and the history of architecture: the experience and the sensitive imagination of the built environment. Ambiances, 1, 3.

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